Brooklyn Boro

Liberty aim to get early jump on Mystics

Open best-of-3 series vs. Washington at Barclays Center

September 14, 2023 John Torenli, Sports Editor Brooklyn Daily Eagle
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The New York Liberty won a franchise-record 32 games this season.

They grabbed their first-ever title trophy by defeating defending WNBA champion Las Vegas for the Commissioner’s Cup.

They also boast the Associated Press Player of the Year in Breanna Stewart, who could be crowned WNBA Most Valuable Player later this month.

All of that will mean nothing come 7:30 p.m. at Barclays Center Friday night when the second-seeded Liberty’s record will be back to 0-0 before Game 1 of this best-of-3 first-round playoff series against the No. 7 Washington Mystics.

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“We have a very special group and I’m very excited about what we’re going to do in the playoffs,” said New York forward Jonquel Jones Sunday after the Liberty had their season-high eight-game winning streak snapped with a 90-88 loss to the Mystics in Downtown Brooklyn.

Washington (19-21) earned a 2-2 regular season-series split with New York (32-8) when Brittney Sykes turned Natasha Cloud’s lob pass into a buzzer-beating basket for the win.

Though they finished 13 games behind the Liberty in the standings, the Mystics proved tough enough to spoil Opening Night for the WNBA’s newly formed “Super Team” in our nation’s capital and ended their campaign with a heartbreaking defeat.

That makes them potential spoilers as New York begins its bid for the franchise’s first-ever WNBA championship.

“I think they get up for us,” Liberty coach Sandy Brondello said of Washington, which earned the seventh seed by winning two of its final three games.

“This is a really good team that had a lot of injuries (during the season). So they feel good about themselves too.”

The Mystics will be without center Shakira Austin for at least the first two contests due to a hip injury that has kept her out since a June 25 loss to New York.

But Sykes, Cloud, Elena Delle Donne and Ariel Atkins form a talented enough nucleus to give New York plenty to worry about in a short series.

Sykes was the only one of those starters who didn’t help Washington win the 2019 WNBA title.

“Regardless of the injuries, regardless of whatever — you’ve got to go through a really good team still and a team that’s hungry, a team full of dogs,” said Cloud, who had 17 points Sunday.

“So we just wanted to make ourselves known and let it be known that this is going to be a really good series.”

As was the quartet of contests between the teams during the WNBA’s first-ever 40-game campaign.

Natasha Cloud believes the Mystics have what it takes to give the Liberty “a really good series,” beginning with Game 1 at Barclays Center. AP Photo by Stephanie Scarbrough

In the May 19 opener, Cloud and Atkins finished with 14 points apiece as the Mystics smothered the new-look Liberty, 80-64, at Entertainment & Sports Arena, where they will host Game 3, if necessary, on Sept. 22.

Sabrina Ionescu had 18 points for the Liberty, who had their lowest scoring output of the season that night, but finished second in the league by year’s end with 89.2 points per contest.

On June 25 back in Brooklyn, the Liberty pulled out an 89-88 overtime thriller on Stewart’s three-point play with 12.7 seconds remaining.

Ionescu knocked down seven 3-pointers en route to 31 points as New York overcame a 17-point, first-quarter deficit.

“A win like this can help us tremendously,” Stewart said that night.

On July 21, the Liberty returned to Washington and held off a late run by the short-handed Mystics for a 96-87 triumph that was highlighted by Jones’ 27 points and 11 rebounds.

Sykes had 29 points and 10 boards for Washington, which was without Delle Donne and Atkins as well as Austin.

New York, which got 11 points off the bench from Marine Johannes in Sunday’s loss, knows it will need more than its star-laden starting lineup to get past the Mystics.

Washington reserves outscored the Liberty’s “Bench Mob”, 25-18, in Sunday’s finale.

“I think every bench is important. Their bench was important for them as well. Their vital for our success,” noted Brondello. “Marine does what she does and (versatile forward Kayla Thornton) does what she does at both ends. … It’s going to be important for us (in the series).”

So will the crowd at Barclays, which established franchise records in attendance this year, including a pair of contests that brought in more than 11,000 fans to the corner of Atlantic and Flatbush.

“Our fans have been great the entire season,” Jones gushed. “Having them push us and support us is going to be amazing.”

Jones also knows what it will take to knock off the Mystics, who are eager to spoil what has thus far been a dream season here in Brooklyn.

But the 2021 WNBA MVP believes the Liberty have something more to offer than a gaudy regular-season record, Commissioner’s Cup banner hanging from the rafters at Barclays and Stewart’s third AP Player of the Year award.

“I think our toughness is the heart and soul of the team. Our togetherness as well,” she insisted.

They’ll have to display plenty of both if they hope to avoid having a losing record for the first time since the Mystics beat them on Opening Night.

Jonquel Jones will have to be a strong inside force for the Liberty to get past the Mystics in this best-of-3 first-round WNBA playoff series. Photo by Brandon Todd/New York Liberty

GIVE ME LIBERTY: Game 2 will also be at Barclays on Tuesday night at 7:30 p.m. … The Liberty will be up against a tough Washington defense, which finished fifth in the league with 80.9 points allowed per game. … The Mystics were 7-13 on the road this season while New York went 15-5 at home.

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